Sunday, 2 November 2014

"In the Forest of the Night"

Getting Frank Cottrell-Boyce as a writer is a coup as big as the hiring of Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis. His screenplays are constantly surprising, whilst still managing to tell a story and, indeed, the plot progression in this story is very different from anything we have seen before. However, it seems to me that Cottrell-Boyce's method of telling a story without adhering to tried-and-tested plot structures produces some decidedly mixed results.

The problem, such as it is, is not the basic story line or the quality of the writing, but the fact that it is uses many of the devices of magical-realism without a thought as to how they can be made to work in the context of a Doctor Who story. "Kill the Moon" used a story that was superficially far fetched, but exploited its mythic resonance with clear roles for the regulars and therefore managed to work as a Doctor Who story. For "In the Forest of the Night" to have worked, it really had to have a child as its point-of-view character – in other words had the story revolved around Maebh, it would have worked much better as it is in the viewpoint of a child that magic and science fiction can really combine. Doctor Who is hardly hard science fiction, but questions that can be ignored in such a story may require answers when the Doctor is involved - magic trees need a more logical explanation, Maebh's 'Red Riding Hood' run through the forest seems forced, rather than archetypal and Maebh's sister hiding in the bushes is now a contrived ending, rather than a fairy tale happy ending. There is also the rather disturbing view taken of psychiatry which seems like it is verging on Hubbardism without the filter of a child's point of view. On a fannish and crudely scientific note, it could also be argued that the 'tree-line defence' fits in rather uneasily with the Doctor Who mythos – unless it is (despite the claims made by the tree spirits) only a comparatively fleeting phenomenon that is extinct by the time of The Ark in Space, to say nothing of not preventing the mass extinctions that allowed the dinosaurs to conquer the earth and then ended their reign.

This does not take away from the fact that Cottrell-Boyce is a fantastic writer and the concepts, although they sometimes clumsily fit together are still striking. There is also the dialogue, which is fantastic throughout 'If you remembered how things felt, you’d have stopped having wars … and stopped having babies...' and, of course, the Doctor's unexpected retort to Clara's rebuke from "Kill the Moon". Director Sheree Folkson, with the assistance of cinematographer Mark Garrett, creates some stunning visuals, with the backlit glade where the tree spirits talk to the Doctor and the wonderful scenes with the wolves and the tyger, where the story almost manages to succeed. However, it has to be said that she sometimes struggles with Cottrell-Boyce's methods of storytelling. The cast she marshals, however, is excellent – the Coal Hill Kids are an unusual and welcome addition and the regulars are on fine form, none more so than Peter Capaldi gives a performance of grouchiness, humour and real sympathy – witness the scene where he tries to convince Clara to save an ever dwindling set of people. However, the Doctor's place in the plot is purely as an observer. Such stories have worked before, but, with neither the Doctor being the driving character, nor Maebh being the point-of-view character, the story loses an important personal focus, another critical flaw in the story.

Despite the considerable talent behind its realisation and some truly great moments, "In the Forest of the Night" barely works as a Doctor Who story and it is probably one that I won't revisit too often.

NEXT: "Dark Water"/"Death in Heaven"